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At Custer's last stand, a first stand for Indians

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 24, 2003


Every June, Enos Poor Bear Jr. journeys from his home in Martin, S.D., to a wind-swept promenade here in southeastern Montana to pay homage to his forebears who fought in one of the seminal battles of the American West.

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Mr. Poor Bear, a Lakota Sioux, walks past all the tourists who inevitably congregate at a white obelisk marking the site where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and members of his 7th Calvary died in the battle. He and his friends, instead, stop down the slope, where they pray, perform cleansing rituals, and turn their heads away from the battle reenactments occurring in the distance.

Wednesday Poor Bear and hundreds of other native Americans will no longer have to celebrate one of the great military triumphs ever achieved on US soil from the relative shadows.

Some 127 years after routing Custer at Little Bighorn, they will finally get a memorial honoring the Indians who died in the famous siege. On a barren ridge overlooking the Little Big Horn River, fringed by cottonwood, the federal government will unveil a circular monument recognizing the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters who repelled an invading army sent to extinguish their traditional way of life.

"We can begin to rewrite history with this memorial if we [western tribes] can get our act together and form a unified effort," says Poor Bear, who wears his hair in braids nearly to his waist. "It's an opportunity to honor the way of life that we struggled to maintain."

The $2.3 million memorial, perhaps appropriately enough, will share the same bluff as the monument to the 7th Cavalry. The main architectural element is a circular stone wall, part of which is topped by Indian figures on horseback, sculpted out of steel rod. The spherical design is inspired by ancient "medicine wheel" worship sites dotting the high plains. Two "weeping walls" have been reserved for tribes to inscribe names or words to honor the 100 native Americans who fell in the epic struggle.

The battlefield itself, despite drawing thousands of tourists each year, remains remarkably unmolested. White tombstones marking where Custer's troops fell in the one-day skirmish are scattered about like sugar cubes. The landscape is stark: a largely treeless expanse of Montana prairie where only the wind and enigmas of history rule.

"What's emotional about Little Bighorn is that you can stand anywhere on the battlefield and see a landscape that looks pretty much as it did in 1876," says Bob Reece, president of Friends of the Little Bighorn National Monument. "You really get a sense of being there. So much of what actually happened remains a mystery. It's a mythological episode in our common past that captures our imagination, whether you find affinity for Indians or the men in blue."

Symbol to spur reconciliation

Longtime proponents of the memorial hope it help foster a larger public dialogue about the European conquest of native peoples in the US and ongoing efforts to bring cultural reconciliation. "Completion of this Indian memorial has been a long time coming, like 127 years," says Darrell Cook, the superintendent of Little Bighorn National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service. "This is the first one that truly recognizes the conflict between the Indian and non-Indian people in the West."

For Earnie La Pointe, the great-great grandson of famed Sioux spiritual leader Sitting Bull - who predicted the outcome of the battle on the basis of a vision he had had - the memorial holds profound symbolism. As a proud Vietnam veteran who has traveled to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. and wept for fallen comrades, he's convinced this shrine will be a similar touchstone for native Americans.